November 16, 2006In the remote forests
of southeastern Russia, scientists have captured what's believed to be the rarest
big cat on Earth: a Far Eastern leopard.
The animal is so scarce that only 30 are thought to survive in the wild.
The team, led by biologists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, caught the 100-pound (45-kilogram) male in a snare last week while studying Siberian tigers in the Russian Far East, 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Chinese border (See Russia map).
The chance capture gave biologists a priceless opportunity to study the elusive feline, and Melody Roelke (below), a specialist in big-cat genetics with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, wasn't shy about getting a closer look.
She and other team members conducted a thorough series of tests on the leopard, from studying its teeth to collecting sperm samples, before releasing the animal back into the wild.
Among the scientists' main concerns is whether Far Eastern leopards, also known as Amur leopards, can continue to sustain their tiny, isolated population, or whether disease and inbreeding may eventually wipe out the cats.
"This capture represents a milestone in our cooperative efforts to save the Far Eastern leopard and Siberian tiger from extinction," said Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Russia Program, in a statement.
"With the information gained from these animals, and others to come, we will be in a much better position to determine appropriate conservation actions."
Blake de Pastino
More Photos in the News
Today's 15 Most Read Stories
Free Email Newsletter: Focus on Photography